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David Amram at 86: Still improvising

Composer-writer David Amram inspired by jazz, Mariachi, American Indian music.
Composer-writer David Amram inspired by jazz, Mariachi, American Indian music.Read more

"Usually, this doesn't happen until it's a memorial concert," says composer David Amram, who is thoroughly bemused at reaching age 86. "But I think it will encourage all the young dreamers who are told to give it up before they even get started."

Out of the blue, the Bucks County-raised Amram has a sizable birthday-bash concert at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Trinity Center for Urban Life, not part of any preexisting concert series, but the work of the New York Chamber Festival, which will repeat the program Monday in New York. Almost all of the concert's eight pieces will be Philadelphia premieres, in a program that comes close to encompassing the composer's impossibly eclectic life.

On the classical side (sort of), there's Three Lost Loves for violin, saxophone, and piano, written this year. But typical of Amram, musical boundaries blend together. He is a longtime student of Native American music, and he and his son Adam will perform the Lakota tribe "Welcoming Song" he also used in his symphonic work Trail of Beauty, written in 1977 for the Philadelphia Orchestra in a cultural mixture that then-music director Eugene Ormandy found vexing. The concert ends with Amram improvising along with readings of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

A core member of the Beat Generation, Amram partied with Charlie Parker, enjoyed long afternoon talks with Thelonious Monk, and spent longer evenings improvising on his French horn while Kerouac slammed out poetry. On Wednesday, family members will read Kerouac while Amram jams on piano and other instruments.

Anyone who knows Amram -- once considered the unofficial mayor of Greenwich Village -- won't be surprised that the concert is free of charge. Or to see him moving his own concert equipment. Or arriving on stage in a coat and tie, but with numerous necklaces and mementos around his neck -- all evidence of the his many travels and contacts. Similarly, his classical pieces are often memorials of sorts to the great personalities who have gone before him, whether Sitting Bull or proto-hipster monologist Lord Buckley. The new Three Lost Loves is based on stories by Willa Cather, Zora Neale Hurston, and Kerouac.

"Each person can be creative in using your own story in music. The old jazz players used to shout out, 'Tell your story!' Part of the visual arts and literary arts is a way of storytelling," Amram says. "But that's not the way we're taught in composition."

Yet what he does is hardly musical portraiture, as, unlike theater, music can't hope to survive on its implied outside meaning: "You have to have a really strong structure."

Amram extravagantly encourages young artists, but the example he sets in his own life should be enough for anybody with a taste for picaresque living. Growing up in then-rural Feasterville, he would hang out at the gas station, listen to Mariachi bands from Philadelphia, and hear the northbound trains going by, wondering whether he would ever pursue his big-city dreams. From there, his Vibrations: A Memoir (Routledge, 58 pages, $29.95) tells of his adventures in postwar Paris, and downtown New York City, playing with Charles Mingus, writing incidental music for Arthur Miller's After the Fall, and being chosen by Leonard Bernstein to be the New York Philharmonic's first composer in residence. During isolated West Coast visits, he scored the original Manchurian Candidate film. He was known to sleep only three hours a night. Once, when he described himself as a homebody, a girlfriend supposedly remarked, "Sure. Any home, any body."

Some years later, when making the 2011 documentary film David Amram: The First 80 Years (full disclosure: I wrote it), he wasn't so keen to recount some of the wilder stuff. Here is a trailer for the film:

That's partly because what was typical in the '50s and '60s wouldn't be well understood now. "The book is an honest reflection of what I saw and what I came out of," he said. "I'm happy I wrote it ... but If I tried to rewrite it again, I would leave out a lot of things." After all, Amram spent his middle years raising three children (all with names that begin with A) on a farm in rural Putnam Valley, New York. Now, he is a guest on college campuses and is careful about the messages he puts out.

Amram seems to have taken a lesson from practically everything -- even the inauthentic Philadelphia mariachi bands. "I understood that you couldn't just barge into another culture, but approach it in the same way as you do with Bach or Shakespeare," he says. "You spend a lifetime to understand and live it."

That's his approach toward Native American music. He learned from the late Floyd "Red Crow" Westerman, a Sioux musician and activist. "I remember I was practicing a song and trying to get it right, and Floyd said, 'It takes 12 years to learn a song,' " says Amram. "Every idiom you learn is a lifetime of study."

And then? The standard Amram joke: When he hits 90, he'll go back to school and become a dentist.